Archer drove the car while Geek sat in the passenger seat. They were heading back to the Axiom Few test shack, which was secreted under a motorway overpass some forty kilometres outside London. 'I remember that night Geek.'
'So do I.'
'I never asked you about the Voidant War. But now you need to tell me what's going on.'
'To be honest I don't know. Ever since Brenda, that computer, mentioned the Voidant War I've been searching the web for references to it. I never came across the Space Foundation postings, but I should have known, the Space Foundation lock down their forums to basic keyword searches. It never would have appeared in standard results.'
'Do you think the Epoch Bridge can help us?'
'According to Goddard, the Voidant Messenger referred to the object as the Torre do Desafio. Desafio is Portuguese for Challenge. Challenge Tower. This thing isn't about making us extinct. It's a test, to see if we can survive it. I want to run some more tests on the Epoch Bridge before we make any promises. But if my estimations are correct, and if we can get people into large open areas, stadiums, concert venues, we can vastly increase the amount of people we send over the bridge.'
They arrived at the test shack after the sun had set, as a wintry chill was taking hold of the night and plunging the temperature towards zero. Archer parked the car under the cover of a cluster of trees at the edge of a nearby pine forest. The two of them got out and headed down a grassy bank towards the overpass. The sound of the rush hour cars and trucks grew louder as they approached the test shack, a corrugated metal shed that stood near one of the concrete slopes under the motorway.
'Who's that?' said Geek, pointing ahead.
Archer looked. A small boy was sitting with his back against the shack with his knees pulled up to his chest. He wore a dark coat that was too big for him and as they approached, Archer saw that there was something wrong with the lad. For starters he had no hair, and as he lifted his face to look at Geek and Archer, Archer saw that he had only one eye, the other lid was closed. He also had a harelip and a distorting Habsburg jaw that pushed his chin forward to an abnormal degree.
'What are you doing here mate?' said Archer.
The boy put his hands on the ground beside him and used them at length to stand up. Once erect, although standing in an awkward pose, he brushed the dust off his coat and looked, with his single eye, directly at Geek. When he spoke, his disfigured jaw caused him to slur his words. 'I'm here to stop you from making a big mistake.'
'What mistake?' asked Geek.
'I'm talking about the Voidant Lance. You need to invert your approach. Don't think about saving the people. You have to eliminate the threat. Look. It's cold out here. Can we go inside?'
Inside the test shack, where the Axiom Few tested their inventions to destruction or success, Geek retrieved three cans of BriteStar Fizzy from a small fridge and motioned for the young boy to sit down at the component-strewn workbench.
'Who are you?'
The boy said. 'My name is Lloyd. I'm thirteen. I'm his son.' He was pointing at Archer.
Archer said, 'I don't have a son. I'm not old enough to be your father. Why would you say that?'
Lloyd smiled as best he could given his terrible deformity. 'You told me you'd say that. Look, I don't want to confuse you so let me explain.'
The boy continued. 'Geek here is planning, right now in his head, to gather large groups of people into stadiums, parks, conference halls, did I leave anything out?'
'Music venues,' added Geek.
'Music venues.' Lloyd rested his hand on a square metallic box that lay on the workbench. The Epoch Bridge he was touching was no larger than a tissue box and had two hand holds on either side.
'Don't touch that,' said Geek.
Lloyd ignored him, 'You've just arrived back from the Space Foundation building in London, haven't you? Geek here knows that if one person holds the two handles on the Epoch Bridge, that person will be sent seventy-eight minutes into the future. You don't know why it's seventy-eight minutes, it just is. What Geek is here to find out this evening, why he's gotten you, Dad, to drive him here, is to find out whether, if two people hold hands, and the Epoch Bridge at the same time, they can both be sent seventy-eight minutes into the future.'
Archer looked at Geek. Geek nodded slowly. 'He's right. That was going to be my suggestion. I want to know if it works for more than one person. Lloyd, how do you know all this?'
'Let me save you all the trouble. The experiment works. You will tell the Space Foundation later tonight and they will start mass-producing these things. They’ll turn over every factory they control to the construction of Epoch Bridge units. In thirteen days when the Voidant Lance crashes through the Earth's atmosphere you will have executed a plan to gather as many people as you can into large spaces, holding hands, a human chain looping back to an Epoch Bridge in each location. Twenty million units will be made. This... oh so wonderful device...will bounce three and a half billion people seventy-eight minutes into the future at the exact moment the Voidant Lance strikes L'Ermitage de Collias. We will be saved from the initial blast, a shockwave that would devastate buildings and people, displace continents and oceans. You couldn't save us from the century-long winter that would follow, but avoiding the blast is a good start.' Lloyd raised his arms and yelled sarcastically, 'Praise the Lord! You are the saviour.'
Archer spoke, 'Somehow you don't seem convinced, Lloyd.'
Lloyd's eye was dark. He folded his arms and spoke sternly and with spite. 'You thought you were saving the human race. You were killing us! We became... we will become... genetically scarred, as well as having to face a four-degree drop in temperature that's set to plunge us into another ice-age living under sulphur-dioxide clouds. Perhaps it would be better to let us all die in the impact after all.'
'We haven't got the time to test it,’ said Geek. ‘The only reason the Space Foundation came to us is because they have no other options on the table. That's why they always come to us.'
'You didn't test the Epoch Bridge enough. This unit you designed to save us all, introduces mutations, anomalies into our genetic structure. You mess up your DNA. You introduce cancers and create aberrations. Eventually, some twenty years from now, after it's all too late, Geek here will perfect a module for the Epoch Bridge to enable backwards travelling. It took twenty years to nail the code, and I was the one who volunteered to come back to tell you that you picked the wrong solution this time. You sent yourselves this message from the future. I'm the one delivering it to you. Sorry it didn't work out.'
'What other solution is there? What else can we do?'
'Don't you get it? You still use the Epoch Bridge. But you don't use it on the people. You use it on the Lance.'
Archer was silent.
'Dad. Your own Dad messed you up. You hate him for what he did to you all those years ago. I don't... Look Dad, don't make it a running joke.'
Geek was waving his hands around like an animated scientist who was explaining the success of his latest experiment. Archer smiled at the analogy, because it wasn't actually an analogy at all. 'The leading point of the Voidant Lance tapers to the width of a pinhead,' said his Axiom Few partner from the podium. 'We've all seen it in the pictures. My original Epoch Bridge prototype would only bounce organic matter into the future. I have spent the last three days devising an updated version of the unit that can now bounce inanimate matter forward instead.'
Archer looked around Conference Room Four on the sixth floor of the Space Foundation HQ. The room was currently host to two hundred and fifty assembled scientists. Many of them were respected in their fields, but all of them had their hands tied by corporate budgets and dogged approval processes that they would never be able to develop something as mind-blowing as the Epoch Bridge. This was the Axiom Few's leading edge.
'Now that we can do this, I propose not to bounce the people forward, but to send the Lance itself seventy-eight minutes into the future, so that it misses the Earth entirely. And here's how.'
Geek clicked a button on his presentation controller, and an object shaped like a complex funnel appeared on the screen.
'What's the world like, post impact?'
Archer and Lloyd sat on plastic school chairs retrieved from the inside of the test shack. They were cooking sausages on barbeque forks over a small fire. Archer hadn't yet decided if he would take Lloyd back to his apartment. He lived alone, but what were the risks of other people seeing the boy and asking questions? He would make that decision with Geek when he returned from the Iceberg Building, where he was developing the object he called the Attachment.
Looking at his son, trying to come to grips with the fact that this boy was even sitting here, Archer hoped against hope that Geek's Attachment worked.
Lloyd's face was distorted further by the shadows caused by the licking flames, but it reverted his countenance to a primal beauty that Archer found disquieting. The boy's mutated features drove home the sincerity of his plight. Above them a swirling vista of stars in the sky was made visible by the evening shutdown, where streetlights were extinguished to conserve the power grids. Only a handful of people knew that the beautiful space above them concealed an alien menace that the Axiom Few and the Space Foundation were struggling to understand.
'I can't speak for those who survived the first few years,' said Lloyd, 'but the sunsets of my early childhood were stunning. Reddy orange dust scoring across darkened skies, interspersed with vertical uplifts, where huge fans were built at great expense to push the accumulated dust out into space. Mutations were prevalent in the newborns. Geek would have found that the monkeys he bounced through the Epoch Bridge would give birth to abnormal offspring, if they'd had the chance.'
Archer shook his head, trying to see the image of this dark future world they were on the cusp of creating.
'Vast underground cities were built. Society was on the rebuild but only after devastating collapse. Anarchy and crime prevailed. We were back in the Stone Age, let alone the Ice Age. If only we'd had more time.'
'Couldn't we send you back further, to give us a longer warning?'
Lloyd shook his head. 'Geek never got the chance to augment the backward bridge technology. He died soon after perfecting the module I used. Twenty year Epochs were all we could manage.'
'God. I never would have thought we'd be responsible for so many deaths.'
'Blame the Voidants. Rumours began to surface that now they'd laid waste to the place, they were in a position to take over. I can't think why they'd be interested in a dust ball like Earth. The rumours were that a war was on the horizon. I don't know if I believe all that. People were apt to jump to conclusions and make up stories.'
'The Voidant War is real.'
Lloyd stared at him. 'How do you know?'
Archer shook his head, 'I just do.'